Engrossing French crime flick follows one young inmate's education behind bars
The Corsicans run the bleak concrete-gray prison on the outskirts of Paris where almost the entirety of director/co-writer Jacques Audiard's patiently riveting Un Prophète takes place. And César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) is their leader. He's a corpulent white-haired gargoyle who oversees the Corsicans' affairs with a terrifying calm. César has guards in his pocket who maintain his interests on the inside, keeping him stocked with luxury goods and amenities. Outside, César still operates some casinos in southern France, and a well-paid lawyer informs César about his maintenance deals with an Italian crime boss, his possible problems with the Marseilles-based Arabic gangster Lattrache (Slimane Dazi), and the pragmatic political issues raised by the ongoing activities of the National Liberation Front of Corsica.
César is no joke: He orders the murder of a snitch inside, wherein an assassin smuggles a razor blade inside his mouth into his target's cell under the guise of trading a blowjob for hash. This sneak attack involves the killer dropping to his knees and starting the procedure before standing upright and flipping the blade over between the teeth and jerking it across the neck--a maneuver that requires a petrified, untrained razor man to practice in his cell with gum-bloodying results. César has the ability to broker leave days outside for well-behaved short-timers, getting them to run errands for him in turn for breathing air outside the walls. César doesn't always trust his countrymen, though, knowing full well that the man at the top of the heap always has a target on his back. And César repeatedly proves himself a man willing to turn on enemies or friends before they turn on him.
This is the puzzling prison labyrinth into which Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is dropped as a 19-year-old, but which he learns about only in oblique pieces and incomplete ideas over Prophète's 155-minute running time, which documents his six-year sentence for beating a cop. Malik is an Arabic Frenchman who never knew his parents and who grew up in the juvenile system, speaking both Arabic and French, but never learning to read. And he looks like a fragile sapling among terrifying redwoods when he first enters the prison at the movie's start. Random, unexplained scars on his torso and back look like knotty ridge lines across his skinny frame, and he's easily beaten for the new shoes he's issued on one of his first days in the yard.
Audiard--the writer/director behind the competent crime thrillers The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips--isn't merely interested in the gritty day-to-day life behind bars, although cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine stalks characters with an intimate, Dardenne-brothers realism. No, Prophète is a coming-of-age saga of the most disquieting order: Early on in the movie, the Muslim inmate Reyeb (Hitchem Yacoubi) tells the illiterate Malik that he can get an education in prison and that he should leave smarter than when he came in. So educate himself Malik does: In base survival at first, but also in politicking, negotiating, building alliances, deal-making, expanding money-making operations, and eventually, in knowing when and who to kill. Prophète is the story of Malik becoming a criminal man, and it's a maturation that makes Michael Corleone look almost like a boy scout.
It's a rise that benefits from Audiard's diligent pacing. Nothing is hurried, and many scenes feel like filler conversations, but all of these mundane talks eventually reveal themselves to be plotting or information sharing sessions, and you--alongside Malik--slowly piece together the sprawling portrait of this sector of criminal society. It makes for a surprisingly seamless ascent: At no point do you notice that the chess pawn has become the shrewd opponent, but even halfway through the movie there's no question that Malik is no longer that scared young man who entered prison.
The lone odd step is the title: To explain fully how "the prophet" accrues meaning in the movie would spoil many of its disturbingly matter-of-fact moments. Among the movie's overwhelmingly unflinching realism, Audiard inserts scenes of An American Werewolf in London-esque quotidian surrealism: a dead man smokes a cigarette and smoke trails out of a neck wound, twirls a dervish dance, or stands alight in flames. A dream becomes a premonition--perhaps. And title cards occasionally pop up identifying key players in Malik's unsentimental education, or tint the proceedings with curiously sacred hues: A stint in solitary is subtitled "40 days and 40 nights," a specific political move is titled "recite" and spelled in Arabic. While the why of these choices never comes into clear focus, they don't nosedive an overall gripping experience and two reservedly powerful performances from Arestrup and Rahim. Both men prefer using their brains over force, but both also know that force is sometimes inescapable. Un Prophète is somewhat bookended by two murders--one distressingly clumsy and realistic, the other a flourish of mesmerizing stylization. The aesthetic chasm between them parallels the distance--intellectual, moral, emotional--that Malik travels, too.